Are We Doing Enough in the Global Response to Air Pollution? A Case Study of the Persisting Black Soot in Port Harcourt, the Oil Capital of Nigeria

oil spill on land

Wale Fadare, MD, Western University MHIS Candidate

Air pollution is easy to imagine when considering the many environmental hazards and threats to public health. When air is foul or contains particulate matter, breathing is unpleasant. Such conditions can cause lung diseases and hypersensitivity reactions in the respiratory tract, which can cause inflammation and cancers of the lung and other body organ systems. In addition, air pollution causes mental illness, including problems with cognition and depression (Allen et al., 2017). Furthermore, air pollution affects living and working conditions and components of the environment which all living things enjoy: the land, the water, the aesthetics of natural and manmade structures, as well as the complex interactions between plants and animals. All these inter-relationships, when considered with the loss of employable hours for human beings due to ill health, translate to a lower quality of life, reduced income earning ability, and degradation of the environment.

Defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical, or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere (WHO, 2022a), air pollution is a crucial indicator of the 11th Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) focused on making “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable” (UN, 2022). In some places worldwide, people wore masks well before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020. This practice was typically in response to severe air pollution in highly populated locations (megacities) resulting primarily from the combustion of fossil hydrocarbons for fuel (cooking, transportation or power generation from hydrocarbon molecules). Since 2011, the WHO has maintained an Air Quality Database (WHO, 2022b), which tracks the amount of particulate matter and toxic gases in selected cities worldwide. WHO has used this database as an advocacy and progress monitoring tool. It is interesting that even though this database contains self-reported information from government agencies and environmental scientists, WHO estimate that less than 99% of the earth’s population breathes air that meets the standards for clean air. Most cities occupying the lowest rankings on the Air Quality Database s are in low-and-middle-income countries (LMIC), with New Delhi (India). Karachi (Pakistan), Beijing (China), and Cairo (Egypt) are topping the list. Data from NASA’s Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) and the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy corroborates this trend (Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, 2018).

world map

The cohort of dramatically underperforming cities and countries has not changed much in the last ten years. This apathy to course-correct and eliminate a clear and present threat to planetary health and human life was evident in some of the responses and posturing are seen at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference (also called COP26) that took place in Glasgow, Scotland last November. Country presentations were filled with commitments to cut carbon emissions to net zero even though experts and activists challenged the feasibility of such commitments, citing a lack of consistency in interventions recorded in the previous country reports to the UNFCC (Akintunde, 2021). In closing the conference, the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) was seemingly in despair, as he described the conference outcomes document as a reflection of current global politics. He acknowledged that while the conference achieved significant milestones, the progress made was inadequate (UN Climate Change, 2021). He noted that only 51% of participating countries had conducted a climate change and health vulnerability and adaptation assessment for 2021. This performance rating of the participating countries was only a fractional improvement on the 2019 assessment completion rate of 48%.

As I reflect on the lukewarm reactions of countries and corporations to the threat of climate change and air pollution, my mind often goes to the city of Port Harcourt, the administrative capital of Rivers State in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta.

In November 2016, city residents woke up to find that a thin film of dark dust would settle on practically every surface around them, from skin, clothes and furniture to buildings and vehicles. Residents called this dust the “dark soot” and persons who lived in this city for any considerable length of time began complaining of breathing difficulties, chest pain, and cough associated with the expectoration of black, gritty-textured phlegm.

It has been six years since the first public discussion of this soot, including reporting and analysis by global environmental and climate change journalists). Yet, the Nigerian government and civil society are approaching this health concern with the same kid gloves with which climate change is treated globally. And like the global reaction (or lack thereof) to air pollution and climate change, there are similarities in the contributory factors to the black soot problem, namely: illegalities and a lack of accountability in waste creation and disposal, insincerity from those entrusted with public trust, and ill-health and threat to life among residents of the affected communities.

Port Harcourt, affectionately called the Garden City because of the deliberate siting and maintenance of green, eco-friendly parks, is located at latitude 4°46'38.71"N, and longitude 7°0'48.24"E. It is home to over seven hundred and fifty thousand people with a population density of 7,628 persons per square kilometre (Brinkoff, 2021). Despite being the third richest sub-national administrative unit in Nigeria by income generation (Adeleke et al., 2021), Rivers State is also a region with some of the broadest wealth disparities in Nigeria. There are reports of widespread insecurity, a youthful population plagued by high unemployment, and less than 35% of residents of the state have any form of health insurance (Vaughan et al., 2016). It is home to major onshore and offshore oil and liquefied natural gas exploration and production servicing companies, including the government-owned petroleum refinery, Eleme Petrochemicals Company Limited, located in the capital city (IEPL, 2021). Rivers State is also one of the theatres of operation of the so-called Niger Delta militants, whose violent operations, the bombing of oil pipelines and establishment of illegal modular oil refineries have characterized the socio-cultural narrative of Southern Nigeria.

Soot is particulate matter in smoke produced from the combustion of petrochemical and biological products. Nrior and Iroegbu (2017) identified six primary sources of black soot in Port Harcourt: illegal fractional distillation in modular petroleum refineries by militants, smoke and flared gases from the Eleme refinery and other petrochemical companies, and exhaust fumes from the numerous vehicles in Port Harcourt. Other culprits include exhaust fumes from large electricity generators and the burning of rubber automobile tyres for use in skinning animals in abattoirs in the state. In addition to suggesting multiple causative factors, this list presents the key stakeholders that must be engaged and it outlines potential intervention points in addressing the increasing air pollution in this case study.

Researchers have used dispersion model analysis to show the direct contribution of oil production facilities to soot-related air pollution in the Niger Delta (Nwosisi et al., 2021). And evidence suggests that bioaerosols (which are the airborne microscopic and biological substances in polluted air) are implicated in the incidence of respiratory diseases, including cancers, allergies, chronic obstructive airway disease (COPD), and even infective conditions like tuberculosis (Ephraim-Emmanuel & Ordinioha, 2021). The distribution of the harmful effects of air pollution is far from even across societies, and Port Harcourt is no exception. Poorer members of the Port Harcourt society are disproportionately affected by the causative factors of the air pollution they experience because they have fewer treatment options for their medical conditions and pay out-of-pocket for their healthcare (Jamison et al., 2013; Vaughan et al., 2016). The black soot saga in Port Harcourt presents evidence that supports research that the inequalities between rich and poor across the globe will only widen with the worsening effects of climate change (Costello et al., 2009).

Government agencies in Nigeria have traded blame on who was and still is responsible for addressing the causes and effects of the black soot since it first appeared in 2016 (Salami, 2021; Simire, 2020). However, the more significant concern is that despite the outrage and advocacy by the media and civil society, no regulatory policies have been implemented to reverse the air pollution or correct its population and environmental health effects.

Nigeria is a signatory to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and 2015 Paris Agreement. World Bank data from 2017 estimated that the proportion of Nigerians exposed to air pollution above the WHO stipulated cut-offs at 99% was well above the 94% global average for the same year, and Nigeria’s rating of 94% in the year before the black soot started in Port Harcourt (World Bank, 2017). However, in collaboration with the Canadian Climate Solutions Advancement Network (ClimateSAN), Nigeria and her Climate Action Support Group participated in the COP26 conference with no clear action plan to address the environmental pollution from petrochemical sources in general and the black soot threat in Port Harcourt in particular.

Despite glaring evidence of the harmful impact of the black soot on residents of the Niger Delta region, corporate profit trumps planetary health and wellbeing of the people most at risk. It is sad to note that this script is one that can be played out in almost any of the cities that report high levels of air pollution globally.

What will it take to change the current status quo of inaction? I will be honest in saying that I do not have a comprehensive response, but I see an opportunity in the recent wave of youthful activism in politics, human rights, technological innovation, sports, creative arts and yes, climate change that is sweeping the world. As custodians of the future, young people in Port Harcourt (and in each of the least ranking cities on the global Air Pollution Index) need to educate themselves about the environmental threats in the Anthropocene. Then, like the researchers who studied the black soot in Port Harcourt, young ecological activists need to define the stakeholders they must engage, lobby, call out or against whom to initiate legal action.

Snorting black phlegm into a handkerchief is hard proof that isn't easy to ignore. The black soot and its associated medical and environmental effects cannot be glossed-over with flowery speeches in a conference plenary or distracted by political posturing. Air pollution affects real people who are just trying to be the best they can be. They deserve to breathe cleaner, healthier air.




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Photo credit: The Guardian Newspaper Nigeria